Many students worry about gaining weight during their first year of college—the so-called "freshman 15." But an unexpectedly large number of students may be unable to afford nutritious food, putting their physical health, mental well-being, and academic performance at risk.
While research on the extent of this problem among college students is limited, a new study published Jan. 9 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that 59 percent of students at a midsize university in Oregon were food insecure at some point during the previous year. That means they had limited or uncertain access to nutritious and safe foods.
In contrast, a 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 14.5 percent of households in the country were food insecure.
"Based on other research that's been done, we expected some amount of food concerns among college students," said study author Daniel López-Cevallos, an associate director of research at Oregon State University, in a press release. "But it was shocking to find food insecurity of this severity. Several recent trends may be combining to cause this."
Several Factors Lead to Food Insecurity
Among these trends are rising college tuition costs and a high cost of living, which has forced some students to make difficult choices between paying for classes and rent or eating healthy. In addition, more first-generation and low-income students are now attending college. These students may not have the family support they need to keep nutritious food on the table when their budget is stretched thin.
Even students with jobs were not immune—they were almost twice as likely to report experiencing food insecurity. Half of the participating students worked at least part-time.
“Students [in the study] are working on average 18 hours a week with some working as many as 42 hours in addition to full-time student status,” said lead author Megan Patton-López, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Benton County Health Services, in an email to Healthline.
Food Insecurity Affects Physical and Mental Health
Food insecurity leaves many students struggling to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat protein sources, such as beans and lean meats. Poor diet can affect both physical and mental health. Previous studies have found a connection between food insecurity and academic problems, which also showed up in this study.
“The students in our study who reported food insecurity were more likely to have a GPA less than 3.1 than their food secure peers,” said Patton-López.
Researchers only surveyed a small number of students—354—at Western Oregon University, so the results may not be applicable to all colleges and universities. Other studies, however, have found similar levels of food insecurity among college students—39 percent at the City University of New York and 45 percent at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“More research is needed,” said Patton-López. “However, given the widespread use of food pantries on university campuses, I would suspect that the need is high.”
Food Banks Bridge the Gap for Students
The College and University Food Bank Alliance lists almost 40 schools as members, including Oregon State University and Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU students, faculty, staff, and members of the faith community set up the university’s food pantry—known as the Rampantry—in 2013 to address food insecurity at the university by providing students with healthy food options.
“Rampantry offers VCU students basic staple items (rice, canned fruit and vegetables, beans, pasta, canned meats, etc.) and a list of menu options to create meals with the food,” said Terrence Walker, the pantry’s student affairs staff sponsor, in an email to Healthline. “The only snack foods that we offer are raisins, nuts, popcorn, and breakfast bars. We are also in discussions with Shalom Farms [a nonprofit community farm] to offer students fresh produce, possibly during the farm's next harvest.”
Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget
Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, LDN, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, offered these tips to help students eat healthy on a tight budget.
Cook at home. “Cooking more often than eating out is absolutely the best way to save money,” says Krieger. You also have greater control over what you eat. To save even more, invite friends over, cook a large meal, and split the cost.
Eat in season and locally. “With fresh fruits and vegetables, knowing what’s in season in your area will help keep the cost down.” Shop at local farmers markets, or read the tags at the supermarket to choose produce that is grown closer to home.
Choose frozen. While fresh is always good, frozen vegetables and fruit offer added convenience, with less chance of waste. ”The nice thing is you can grab a cup out of the freezer bag, and you just make what you need to eat.”
Buy in bulk. You can save quite a bit of money by buying non-perishable items in bulk, like whole grains—rice, flour, quinoa—dried beans, nuts and seeds. Plus, choose single ingredient foods instead of packaged mixes. “It always seems like the fried noodles and the pasta and rice mixes are cheap, but when it comes down to the unit price, it’s actually cheaper to make it yourself and add your own seasoning.”